Liu: China's Fight to Spin the '08 Olympics

The transformation of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics is emerging as perhaps the most ambitious remake of any major world capital in history, short of the postwar reconstructions. The silhouettes of the spectacular new stadium and swimming center are already familiar worldwide, but they are set in a rebuilt urban core that startles return visitors. Lush new green spaces, swirling expressways, shopping arcades roofed with giant LED screens, a new downtown financial center plus a vastly expanded public transport system have all rapidly appeared. To some, the Olympic-driven metamorphosis evokes the remaking of Paris by Baron Haussmann between 1865 and 1887—a complete redesign of the city center, including the creation of the grand boulevards for which Paris is famous today.

For others, Beijing's radical rebuild smacks of totalitarian-power architecture, akin to the grandiose but unrealized blueprints of Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect. But Albert Speer Jr. disagrees. The younger Speer—also a prominent German architect—recently redesigned a central eight-kilometer-long strip running from the center of the Forbidden City north to the new Olympic green. Mandated by imperial feng shui masters, this has been Beijing's heart for centuries. Speer says his scheme is a paean to the city's tradition, not a power trip—despite being "bigger, much bigger" than his father's "megalomaniac" design for New Berlin.

However you characterize it, Beijing's rulers are now permitting ultramodern design of a type Maoists have long shunned as bourgeois or Western. Many of the new taboo-busting constructions are stunning gravity-defying structures designed by some of the world's top architects, as well as China's own young guns. Some have sparked unprecedented public debate about whether Beijingers should sacrifice its old charm for modern glitz and convenience—and at what cost. "[Architects] have introduced lots of things we didn't have and didn't do before," says designer Feng Keru, senior editor of the Chinese edition of Domus, the Italian architectural bible. As a result, she says, Beijing's recent edifice complex has triggered new standards for construction and engineering nationwide.

The Olympics will be a massive coming-of-age party for the world's newest economic superpower, as planned. But President Hu Jintao's administration is not just building an Olympic village; it is overseeing the creation of a dynamic new capital with "the pyramids of the 21st century," says Prof. Zhou Rong of Tsinghua University's architecture school. The problem is that, with the 2008 deadline looming fast, even Beijing can't quite control the pell-mell process of demolition and construction. The basic concern is how to balance costly environmental projects against the raw need for economic growth. The ruling Communist Party has long based its legitimacy on providing prosperity. But for several years now it's been struggling both to restrain construction spending in a dangerously hot economy and to redistribute income more fairly. The Olympic building program is clashing head-on with both goals, by concentrating Beijing's own spending in the wealthy capital and by inspiring every province to spend heavily on grandiose buildings, too.

The communist leaders are responding by trying to rein in the provinces. The contradiction is glaring. Tough new draft legislation on urban planning proposes stiff fines for property firms guilty of wasteful land use and other violations. In the spring, the Ministry of Construction blasted local governments for single-mindedly pursuing urban development and "vanity projects." It also warned the provinces against "blindly" hiring foreign architects who are "divorced from China's national conditions and pursue novelty, oddity and uniqueness," although this describes most of the architects redesigning Beijing. Many provincial leaders are taking this mixed message to mean "full speed ahead."

Locals have come to know the new projects by wry nicknames: the futuristic 90,000-seat National Olympic Stadium, with its massive external lattice of intertwined beams, is the "bird's nest." The equally stunning National Aquatics Center, a shimmering translucent block swathed in an energy-saving skin that looks like bubble wrap, is known as the "water cube." Then there's the "duck's egg," the National Opera House designed by French architect Paul Andreu: a titanium ovoid set near Tiananmen Square. And perhaps most breathtaking of all is the new headquarters designed by Rem Koolhaas's firm for the China Central Television corporation, or CCTV. The two 230-meter-high L-shaped towers lean into each other to form a vertiginous loop; local wags call it "trouser legs."

Beijing was overdue for a face-lift. When the Red Army first marched into the capital in 1949, Mao Zedong dreamed of turning it into a city of industry with "a forest of chimneys"—a vision he soon helped realize. When China's capitalist boom began many years later, Mao's smoking factories were soon surrounded by ugly glass-and-chrome office towers, many topped with unintentionally kitschy pagoda roofs. The result was a mess: polluted, chaotic, hard on the eyes and decidedly less than world-class. "You can't say it was all rubbish," says Professor Zhou. "But just about."

The cleanup is well underway, and much will be done by the time the Olympics open on Aug. 9, 2008. Six new subway lines, a 43km light-rail system, a third airport terminal and runway, and 25 million square meters of property development—all this will greet a projected crowd of 500,000 foreign visitors and 1 million mainland Chinese. The leadership has earmarked some $12 billion for "greening" projects, from a 125km tree belt around the city to mandatory adoption of strict European vehicle-emission standards. Earlier this year, entire blocks of run-down low-rise tenements along the northern Second Ring Road were replaced within weeks by a two-kilometer-long green belt of parkland, walkways, small playgrounds, lighting and 25-foot-tall trees. And that's just one of numerous green spaces, including a 12-square-kilometer Olympic park.

Mao's beloved chimneys are quickly disappearing. Parts of the Capital Iron and Steelworks and the entire 1.5-sq-km Beijing Coking and Chemical plant have been shuttered or moved to neighboring Hebei province. During the desperate industrialization of the Mao era, both factories were great sources of prestige. But Party leaders are now increasingly concerned with the environment—especially with reducing Beijing's eye-stinging air pollution before the Games begin. Closing the Coking and Chemical Plant alone should reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 7,500 tons annually, says plant president Zhang Xiwen. "Still, it was a big sacrifice," he says.

And it's not the only one. The speed of Beijing's makeover has further diluted much of the sense of order in this imperial capital founded by Kublai Khan. Ming emperors built the Forbidden City, with city gates and walls revolving around it, in a rectilinear grid. On taking the capital in 1949, Mao and his Russian advisers collectivized single-family courtyard homes, built factories and razed the city wall to make way for the Second Ring Road. (Now Beijing has six ring roads.) "Regrettably, very, very little of Old Beijing's look has been preserved," laments Ma Zishu, formerly deputy director of the high city's cultural-relics bureau. "The problems of disorder and high density began with the plans of Mao's Soviet experts," says Domus's Feng. "Now all of a sudden the government is trying to turn Beijing into an international city, so all of the tensions and conflicts [of spacing] have been intensified."

Many experts worry that insufficient thought is being given to preserving community and historical continuity. Ancient neighborhoods are vanishing. Beijing preservationists lament the disappearance of charming labyrinthine residential lanes known as hutongs—a Mongol word for "alleyway," many of which have been razed to make way for wide, modern boulevards.

Patchy central planning has created a city with a disjointed, deracinated feel. Entire villages near the Olympic facilities were demolished to make way for space-age-looking structures; nearby clumps of skyscrapers seem as if they'd been airlifted from Tokyo or New York and plunked down at random. Chinese "starchitect" Zhu Pei complains that Beijing's uprooted "ghettoes"—all business buildings here, all luxury residences there—make him feel as if he's "living in an urban archipelago." This approach, says James Brearley, head of the Shanghai-based architecture practice BAU, is typical of Chinese planners' preference for "superscaled segregated-zoning practices" once common in the West during the last century, with central business districts (CBDs) that emptied out at night and apartment complexes lacking retail outlets. The Chinese approach to city design thus far, he says, "is based on one single model, and the model is f—-ing disastrous. You can quote me on that."

Bad as it is, the provincial copies of this model are worse, and even cruder. Every mayor of a second- or third-tier city now seems to want to set a building record. The Jiangxi capital of Nanchang, for example, has constructed the world's largest Ferris wheel. Zhengzhou (population: 6.6 million) is competing with Chongqing (population: 31 million) for the title of the "Chicago of China," and its apparatchiks boast that they have more construction cranes per capita than any other city in the country. In Zhejiang province, city officials in Shaoxing reacted to the central government's order to limit new CBDs by simply rebranding theirs as a mixed-use "commercial center" with residential facilities. The makeover is grand, with a vast empty plaza (a Shaoxing version of Tiananmen Square), a pyramid-shaped building that is home to (what else?) the city's planning center, and a theater that looks like a knockoff of the Sydney Opera House. There are now about 100 small cities in China that, like Shaoxing, have built grand new opera houses, estimates Professor Zhou. Even Shaoxing officials regret having paved over ancient canals and humpbacked bridges that once gave the place a lyrical "water-city ambience"; officials are now trying to preserve what's left of the old town.

The type of city that emerges could be critical to President Hu Jintao's legacy. In contrast to the hypercapitalist policies of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, Hu wants to close the alarming rich-poor gap and repair the tattered social safety net that has kept many Chinese mired in poverty. And he aims to do all this at a time when rural migrants are flocking to cities for jobs in services and on construction sites. To accommodate an influx of up to 300 million peasants in the next 15 years, China will not only have to "build almost the same amount of urban infrastructure as already exists," says Karl Traeger of Woodhead, the Australian firm that designed the original Shaoxing CBD. It will also need to plan more carefully. Showcase buildings and endless ranks of pricey luxury flats will do little to house the incoming army of workers, to advance Hu's "harmonious society," or to restrain the runaway construction sector that poses perhaps the single greatest threat to stable growth.

It's an open question how China will handle all this. The nation is now expected to surpass Germany as the world's third largest economy this year, a fitting opening act for the Olympic spectacle Beijing plans. But will the capital emerge as a metropolis of beauty and soul (like Paris) or a brawny show of power (à la Speer's vision for Berlin)? The latter seems far more likely unless China's top leaders—nine men trained as engineers—get serious about promoting "human" values, as they've promised.

Liu: China's Fight to Spin the '08 Olympics | World